David R. Henderson  

An Economic Insight on an Old Joke

The Great Stagnation, Chapter ... Immigration: Reply to Ozimek...

Supply curves slope up.

Here's the joke:
Man to woman: Would you sleep with me for one million dollars?
Woman: Sure.
Man: How about for ten dollars?
Woman: What do you think I am?
Man: We've already established what you are. All we're doing is bargaining about price.

I used to like that joke. But I started thinking about it like an economist. As people who read this blog know, I am an economist. Now, imagine that you offered me one million dollars to be a garbageman for a year. I would take it. But if you offered me $30K for the same time, I wouldn't. The fact that I would take a million to be a garbageman doesn't mean I'm a garbageman. The fact that a woman would take a million dollars to be a prostitute doesn't mean she's a prostitute.

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CATEGORIES: Labor Market

COMMENTS (31 to date)
August writes:

This joke relies on the concept of sin.
Garbagemen aren't inherently sinful, so there's no sin in being willing to be a garbageman for a million dollars.
Prostitution is inherently sinful, so it is sinful to be willing to do it for a million dollars. She is a willing sinner, with price determining the level and gravity of whatever particular sin she is willing to commit.

Erase the concept of sin, and the joke doesn't really make any sense.

NotYourBest writes:

The joke is about "willingness to be" not about currently being (more an ontological issue than economic). And, if you're willing to be a prostitute, then you're moral character has been effectively compromised.

Eelco Hoogendoorn writes:

It doesnt have anything to do with being an economist; it has to do with semantics. You are comparing professions, whereas the blank in the joke is nowhere given such a narrow constraint on meaning. To my mind, it presents itself naturally like a slot for a character judgement rather than an observation of profession (even though I personally dont feel inclined make any). 'whore', or 'slut', rather than 'prostitute'.

In more neutral terms; one is considered a garbageman if one is employed as a garbageman. One is considered 'for sale', if one is for sale.

N. writes:

Or, if you prefer, given your pacifist tendencies, consider murder for hire.

Thomas writes:

But she's willing to prostitute herself for a price.

Robert writes:

August is right that the joke is meaningless without the notion of sin. I don't think that there is anything wrong with exchanging sex for money, so the "joke" is just meaningless; its not even offensive.

This comment
"The fact that a woman would take a million dollars to be a prostitute doesn't mean she's a prostitute."
though, is a bit off. If someone exchanges money for sex then they are a sex worker (or prostitute if you prefer), just like if you collect garbage in exchange for money then you are a garbageman. There is no platonic essence that means you remain something else (not a garbageman) despite what you actually do. There is only a need to distinguish, and claim that you are not *really* a garbageman even though you collect garbage for pay, if you think there is something shameful in being a garbageman.

I see nothing shameful in being a garbageman, a prostitute, or even an economist.

ThomasL writes:

As previously mentioned, the joke hangs on the conception of an act that is wrong in itself--a concept rarely applied to anything but coercion by many libertarians, though it is not in anyway contrary to liberty.

I'll borrow my description of what it means to be wrong in one's soul, rather than wrong in one's actions, from Cicero:

If no one would ever know, if no one would ever suspect, when you performed some act for the sake of wealth, power, ascendency, lust, — if it would remain forever unknown to gods and men, would you do it? They say that it is impossible. Yet it is not utterly impossible. But I ask, If that were possible which they say is impossible, what would they do? They persist, awkwardly indeed; they maintain that such a thing could not be, and they stand firm in this assertion; they do not take in the meaning of the phrase, “If it were possible.” For when we ask what they would do if they could conceal what they did, we do not ask whether they can hide it; but we put them, as it were, on the rack, that if they answer that they would do what seemed expedient if assured of impunity, they may confess themselves atrociously guilty; and if they make the contrary answer, that they may grant that whatever is wrong in itself ought to be shunned.
Tim Worstall writes:

August is close but not quite right.

Replace sin with "repugnant transaction" and we're getting there.

Having sex for money is held to be a repugnant transaction (although the number of people who do do it shows that it isn't for many).

And there are many other possibly repugnant transactions. Would you trade one of your kidneys for $10? No, I wouldn't. For $10 million? Get out of my way!

And yet kidney sales are illegal, in the same way that selling sex for money is: because to bring money into this thing which should be donated is making a transaction which should be (to a certain code of ethics) part of the gift economy, to turn it into a repugnant transaction.

It isn't the trade which is considered to be repugnant, garbageman, sex or organ swap.

It's the bringing money into whether you would decide to do it which is. There are people all over America having consensual non-monetary sex right now (some of them even married, and to surprise a Frenchman, married to each other) and no one blinks an eyelid.

We applaud those who offer a kidney for no money.

But we all know that garbagemen are being garbagemen for the monetary rewards of being so. So, no, we cannot equate the price at which you would have sex with someone with the price at which you would pick up their garbage.

For we already agree that garbage is simply an economic transaction: the relative value of your time. But we still insist that sex for money is a repugnant transaction, where the value of the time for money should not apply. Which is exactly the point of the original joke: that at some price, even repugnance is overwhelmed.

That this conundrum led to a bad Demi Moore movie should not surprise: the set of movies which have Demi Moore in and which are bad is close to unity. Bit of a blot on R Redford's copybook though.

Pyramid Head writes:

The joke plays on the socially-perceived morally-objectionable of prostitution.

Would you kill someone for a billion dollars? The you're a murderer, even if you refuse the job when offered 50 bucks.

David R. Henderson writes:

On your second point, you missed it. If you take money for sex, you're a prostitute. If you don't, you aren't. She said no to the actual offer. Therefore, as far as the evidence we can look at goes, she's not a prostitute, just as I am not a garbageman.
Like you, by the way, I see nothing shameful in being a garbageman, a prostitute, or even an economist.

Lawrence H. White writes:

David's last comment is right, the Woman is not a prostitute. But (consolidating many of the above comments), the Woman does not stand accused of being a prostitute. She rather stands accused of being a woman who is willing to become a prostitute for a high enough price. She thinks she's been insulted, that her moral character has been impugned by the second offer, but the Man lets her know that she has already impugned her own moral character.

ThomasL writes:


I think I'll off an even "more libertarian than thou" perspective and say I think it is both shameful and wrong -- but people should still be at liberty to pursue it if they choose.

Arnold talks about it best with his "church of unlimited government" metaphors. It seems like many libertarians get around the idea of what should and should not be regulated (by law, or by mores) by attempting to ever widen the circle of what should be considered moral behavior.

Many people consider drug use or prostitution immoral, were bothered by it, and so ultimately had government outlaw it. Similarly, many libertarians find those perfectly acceptable, are not bothered by them, and want government make them legal.

I see no inconsistency in asserting a different position: that they are both immoral and should be legal.

I'm not saying you are necessarily advocating government power against things you dislike, you may only wish to persuade, rather than coerce, all of society to accept your moral views.

I am trying to lay emphasis on the fact that you seem inclined to push liberty not by pushing liberty itself, for its own sake, but by widening the bands of morality or convention that you think are fitting too tightly.

I don't agree with that morally or strategically. Morally, as I mentioned above with Cicero, some things are wrong in themselves.

Strategically, I think it is a loser, as you'll never get a better majority of the right (libertarians closest cousins) to forswear the morality of those kind of issues, in order to get them to follow your goals. You might get them to agree that the drug war does more harm than good -- good luck getting them to agree drugs are themselves good. You might get them to agree that adults have the right to make their own mistakes with their own bodies... good luck convincing them their is nothing shameful about prostitution, in fact their daughters might be great at it.

I suspect you don't really believe it either. Can you see yourself counseling a relative or other person close to you on what a great career it is? Good income, set your own hours, what's not to like? Right alongside all the others, doctor, lawyer, engineer, secretary, artist, proprietress, and, oh yeah, prostitute -- as if there were truly no difference at all?

If so, well, shame on you.

Gallego writes:

I think you're wrong to think he means she's a prostitute (=a woman having sex for money). in my view he implies she's a whore, a slut, a woman of easy morales willing to have sex for money, i.e. a potential prostitute, not an actual one; the important difference is between "doing something" and "being willing to do something". analogically, your willingness to be a garbageman makes you a potential one, not an actual one. problem solved, the mistake being your idea of what "[they]'ve already established"..

David R. Henderson writes:

ThomasL writes:
"I am trying to lay emphasis on the fact that you seem inclined to push liberty not by pushing liberty itself, for its own sake, but by widening the bands of morality or convention that you think are fitting too tightly."
No, I am not so inclined. This post was not about liberty; it was about supply curves. It's the Econ part of Econlib.

David R. Henderson writes:

Lawrence H. White and Gallego are right. It turns out that I didn't get the joke. I had thought it was about her being a prostitute. They convinced me that it's not.

ThomasL writes:


I don't agree. The "econ" point you seem to be trying to make is nothing less than to undermine the foundation of all morality -- that it has to be followed within, not only without.

Cicero (and Plato, whom he is referencing and extrapolating on) understood that it wasn't the action alone that made a man moral, it was the soul. If a man wished to do some evil thing, but held back from it for fear of the consequences (either from men or from the gods), his soul was guilty even though his actions were blameless. That is, moral evil was somewhat divorced from evil actions. By necessity, a corrupt will had to precede corrupt actions, but a corrupt will could exist independently of corresponding actions. Morally that was no better, though undoubtedly the practical effects were. Your post attempts to do away with the former as conception, and finds morality only in the action (if at all).

The independent consideration of will and action is also the very core of Christian morality. "For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man." St. Mt. 15:19-20

That is, the error starts within, and precedes action, and exists even if there is no action at all:

"Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery:

But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart." St. Mt. 5:27-28

The basic thrust of your post is no more or less than that Jesus is simply wrong. Not to mention Cicero...

In short, I disagree with the whole premise. You are taking an anecdote where the crux is essentially moral, and are attempting to excise the morality and then find some other or deeper meaning on the far side. There isn't one to be found. It either makes sense on moral grounds, or it is plainly meaningless.

ThomasL writes:


Apologies. I didn't mean that last comment to sound so harsh. I meant all the words, but I didn't mean it to come off with that tone.

Ella writes:

Well, David, the joke is sort of about her being a prostitute. The point is -- is she willing to sell? For prostitution, all it takes is willingness and that indicates a (moral) state. I think the moral question overwhelms the economic one, though. I mean, substitute "drug dealer" for "prostitute." Most of us here don't have a problem with drug legalization, but I would be willing to be most of us would turn down, and be offended by, an offer to deal meth on a street corner, no matter the compensation we were offered.

Your garbage man example I think is much more apt for the point you're trying to make. Or a sadder example is the unemployment rate. A lot of people would be willing to be looking for a job (and therefore be count as unemployed) if they thought work was available. Without the promise of work at a certain level, though, they're not in the market.

One interesting point for willingness equalling a state of being is being a writer. A lot of people (who've never written a word, or at least no words worth reading) will still call themselves writers because that's their dream. No one ever calls themselves, like, an accountant without some kind of accreditation or a job. So what's different about being a writer? (Or a prostitute?)

And the original question is, really, at what price are you willing to enter a market? And why is the price there at all?

This was more rambling than I hoped. I blame a lack of caffeine.

Oh, and, Robert, just call me a prostitute (or a whore or a "sex worker") to my face and I will make you see how offensive it is. ;)

Bob Murphy writes:

I don't know David, this one is tricky, even if we are geeky economists and hyperanalyze the humor out of the joke.

I'm a consultant. Someone says, "Hey, do you want to come give a talk for $1 million?" I say heck yes. Then they say, "Actually sorry, that's not in our budget. Will you do it for $100?" I say heck no. Then we part ways.

Am I not really a consultant until I my next agreed project? I think I am still a consultant, and I was just bargaining over price. At best you could say I'm an unemployed consultant.

So the joke example isn't that obvious, of course, since the quantity supplied of her services is still zero. But we've established that she does have an upward sloping supply curve, as you indicate upfront. She is "in the market" in an economically meaningful sense.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Bob Murphy,
By your reasoning, I am a garbageman.
What establishes that you're a consultant is that you've done consulting.

Joshua Herring writes:

To add to what Gallego and Lawrence H. White said - this is a language issue and a morality issue more than an economic issue. Like a lot of jokes, this one relies on a double meaning. "Prostitute" can mean someone who currently sells sex for a living, and it is also a (marginally) more polite word for "whore." So the man baits the woman using the first meaning and then switches to the second.

N's point above would have been better taken, I think, if the word "mercenary" carried as much opprobrium as "prostitute." If there was a word that factually referred to someone who accepts money to kill and doubled as a morally judgmental word that applied to anyone merely willing to do so, this argument would've ended with N's comment. Probably the reason there isn't such a word (or, more accurately, that "mercenary" isn't as shocking a word as "prostitute") is that hired killings are comparatively rare, but hired sex is a thriving business - both in the honest sense of hiring prostitutes and in the less honest sense of men showing off how much they earn in the hopes of attracting hot women who want to marry for money.

In any case, "garbageman" doesn't have the same double meaning. It only means "someone actually employed to pick up garbage."

RPLong writes:

Prof. Henderson, I think what we are talking about is the whole crux of the joke.

It's funny specifically because the woman isn't currently a prostitute, but the man "establishes that" she would be one at the right price.

If we over-analyze it, it stops being funny, and it also stops being meaningful. You've basically drummed up a glorified version of the Liar's Paradox, i.e. a contradiction in terms.

She hasn't YET sold herself, so she isn't a prostitute; but she is WILLING to sell herself, so she is a prostitute. The fact that you can interpret it both ways is the whole source of the humor of it.

It is also the reason you are currently a garbage man; and also, you aren't.

Get it?

jb writes:

I'm late to the party, but:

You're not a murderer if you're willing to kill someone for a billion dollars. You're a murderer if you actually do kill someone. Big difference. At best, if you were sufficiently engaged in a detailed and specific conversation about a murder and a victim, you might be accused of conspiracy.

Lawrence H. White writes:

Man to woman: Would you sleep with me for one million dollars?
Woman: Sure.
Man: How about for ten dollars?
Woman: What are you, an economist?

granite26 writes:

Laurence wins the internet forever.

Additionally, the morality that's important in the story is the woman's, not the listener's. The joke is about her hipocracy, the prostitutuion bit is just a vehicle.

Bob Murphy writes:

granite26 is right, that the listener's views don't really matter; the humor comes from the fact that she is outraged not by the principle, but by the price.

@David R Henderson: I think you misunderstood me. I wasn't claiming, "You're wrong, my analysis shows she must actually have that profession." Rather, I said this is "tricky," meaning I don't think you settled the matter with your considerations.

Let's take your recent clarification: By your reasoning, I am a garbageman.
What establishes that you're a consultant is that you've done consulting.

But that's not quite right either. I used to be a cashier in a grocery store. So right now, is it true to say that I'm a cashier? Of course not. And that's true, even though I would become a cashier (at least for a while) if someone tomorrow offered me a million dollars annually.

So why am I still a consultant--even if I currently can't "connect" with any paying clients--though I'm no longer a cashier? I think it's because it is plausible that I will eventually find a client with whom I can strike up a mutually agreeable contract. In contrast, it's very unlikely that anyone is going to offer me enough to make it worth my while to become a cashier again.

Back to the joke, I think the real reason she isn't considered a part of that profession is that her reservation price is much higher than what anyone is likely to offer.

It's true, you have a strong trump card in the fact that she has never yet sold anything in that market, but if there were a top-flight scholar coming out of Harvard with a PhD in economics, and he went on a bunch of killer interviews and had people laughing and asking him what he planned on publishing next, I think it would be OK if he told people at parties, "I'm a professional economist." I.e. even though he had yet to actually sell any economist services.

fundamentalist writes:

I always like that joke, too! So I'm going to ignore your rational assessment of it. Besides, jokes aren't funny if they're rational. That's why you don't see many economists making a living in stand up comedy. Humor relies on breaking some rule of logic.

Philo writes:

Of course, it isn't *really* bargaining to quasi-offer $1 million and then actually offer $50. Indeed, the "offer" of $50 isn't a real offer--it's just an insult.

David Friedman writes:

To begin with, the traditional version of the joke isn't "a man" and "a woman," it's Winston Churchill and Lady Astor.

And the point is that for a woman to be willing to trade sex for money is considered shameful--a binary category, not a continuous one dependent on the price. Part of the punch of the joke comes from the listener realizing that that position, while conventional, isn't really right--that a woman willing to trade sex for a million dollars isn't signaling the same characteristics that we deduce, and deplore, when a woman trades sex for ten dollars.

Lady Astor is relying on the conventional view when she responds with "what do you think I am," and Churchill is pointing out that on that view what she is is a prostitute who doesn't happen to have received a sufficiently generous offer yet.

Jan writes:

Woman have exchanged one-time sex for something they want without being called a prostitute. College girls for a passing grade, actresses for a part in a movie etc. Mistresses who are provided for by the man are not considered prostitutes. Would receiving a million dollars for one-time sex really make a women a prostitute?
I think the joke is funny because the woman thinks she is just exchanging one-time sex for a big present. Then the man starts treating her as a prostitute with offering a price a prostitute would get.

I wrote a blog post awhile back at http://thomascolthurst.livejournal.com/33386.html
that analyzed different types of slippery slope and continuum arguments. Here's the relevant section:

It doesn't have a Wikipedia page (yet), but a "no bright-line" argument tries to show that A is bad by placing it on a continuum with known bad thing B. For example: one shouldn't go to see Iron Man 2 for $5 per ticket, because one shouldn't go to see Iron Man 2 for $50,000 per ticket. The same fallacy is at work in the famous "Now are just haggling over the price" Winston Churchill joke. It's not a slippery slope because there is no causality, and it isn't a continuum argument because it isn't trying to establish identity, merely morality or prudence. The name comes from law, in which a bright-line rule is a clearly defined function of objective factors: you must be 21 to drink is a bright-line test, while "I know when I see it" isn't. Here, the presence of a bright line would put a kink in the continuum -- if there was a well known rule of thumb that one should never pay more than $100 for a movie ticket, then the difference between $5 and $50,000 would be even more readily apparent than it already is. But while being bright-line may be a desirable property for a rule to have, there is no law of nature saying that all goods things are separated from all bad things by such; the mistake of a "no bright-line" argument is to assume that there is.
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